Not just “in bed with business”, 5 things FDA does for consumer advocacy and safety

At FF&F, I’m often harsh on FDA for lack of enforcement, ownership of their own role in preventive food safety, and failing to consistently stand by their guidance. However, you will still see me using FDA research and policy decisions as a primary source of credible primary source material. After all, it’s right there in the agency’s mission:

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.

This is a huge endeavor, and for all my criticism, threading the line between public health, consumer advocacy, and some portion of business advocacy is an incredibly hard task that they do what they can with.

Unfortunately, because tackling this mission requires individuals with knowledge of food as an industry, and because the agency is part of the federal government, many people do not recognize any scientific information provided by FDA either because they believe they’re part of a grand conspiracy (which is a group I don’t expect to be reached by this post), or because so many senior members are inevitably connected to conflicts of interest from the business side of food.

However, of FDA’s 14,000+ employees, many of them are doctors, scientists, and public servants who believe in the mission and perhaps even more compelling, there are many others who just have a “steady job” who don’t have a stake in the results. These folks produce great work that helps make our food supply safer. Work that is rigorous, effective, and from a market standpoint, impartial.

So I’ve generated this list to identify a few things to counter the “FDA isn’t an advocate for consumers” argument. To make it onto this list the items need to meet three criteria. First, that the actions taken are intended to protect the public or provide transparency; second, that the action taken doesn’t provide some obvious benefit or perk to industry; and third, that the action is transparent and verifiable (unlike an outbreak response or inspection/approval activities).

1. Interstate Milk and Shellfish Shipper Certification and List

These two lists are published monthly to the public. The list of milk shippers not only provides the names of approved shippers, but also approved manufacturers of packaging for milk in accordance with the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. Even moreso, FDA publishes the current scores they received on their last sanitation audit so that consumers can hold companies accountable and make decisions based on food safety, or ask their favorite dairy product brands who they use. Public scores not only help consumers evaluate companies who otherwise wouldn’t share them, but they actively benefit consumers by incentivizing companies into trying for higher scores even though they technically “passed”.

2. Public posting of Warning Letters

We discuss warning letters often at FF&F because they offer great insight into events where FDA has actually moved forward with enforcement for violations of the law. For the public though, it’s a rare opportunity where FDA has taken the worst-of-the-worst offenders and laid their failures out for all to see, and even more so, note their lack of response when given a first opportunity to correct them.

FDA sees warning letters as a method for encouraging voluntary action to correct problems they found in investigations, after-market product testing and label review, plant inspections, and to increase the pressure on companies that aren’t responding to form 483 findings (inspection violations).

Warning letters are all public for companies big and small, and outline the specifics of the violations along with how they relate to the written law. They also remain posted online forever, even after the problems have been corrected, giving the public a direct look at who in the industry has been most negligent in adhering to the law.

3. Retail Surveillance for Foodborne Pathogens

FDA does a ton of microbiological surveillance activities to get data on the prevalence of foodborne pathogens at the retail level. Whether to evaluate the safety of a specific commodity or to check domestic vs. imported items, this data is not only valuable to consumers and industry alike, but also results in enforcement actions taken against those companies that have their products turn up positive (though unfortunately without some detective work it’s difficult to to see that follow up). Here are some examples of recent retail surveillance activities turned into reports for the public:

National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System: ongoing evaluation of antibiotic resistance in retail meats and other commodities

Microbiological Surveillance Sampling: FY16 Cucumbers and Hot Peppers

Microbiological Surveillance Sampling: FY14-16 Raw Milk Cheese Aged 60 Days

Microbiological Surveillance Sampling: FY14-16 Sprouts

4. Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program

Each year, FDA samples thousands of produce samples both domestic and imported and tests them for hundreds of different pesticides to see what commodities coming from where are in violation of established limits or even detectable. They conduct targeted checks of commodities of concern and take enforcement action against violators.

Once the tests are complete, every year FDA produces a report to show what the current rates of violation and detected levels are. This allows consumers who are concerned about pesticides to either choose imported vs. domestic produce, or avoid certain fruits and vegetables that may be known for more violations. Consumers who are also buying Organic can check out pesticide levels/usage in conventional foods to make sure that their chosen commodity is worth the extra certification for their pesticide concerns.

5. Posting of Recalls, Withdrawals, and Safety Alerts

One that most people know about, but we often take for granted. Think about what a recall is: a company identifies (or has FDA identify for them) an issue with a product that makes it either illegal to sell or potentially unsafe to sell to the public, so the company pulls it from the market. Who needs to be made aware that this happened?

Obviously anyone selling the product needs to know to pull it from the shelf, and they need to let their customers know that they should throw it away or bring it back to the store. But does the entire country need to know that the local supermarket is recalling their muffins because they forgot to label the walnuts?

Not only does FDA make sure that the entire country knows when a company has a recall, but why they had the recall. They then keep a permanent public record that anyone who ever wants to buy a product or do any business with that company can look up with a simple google search.

In addition to publicizing these events, FDA uses this same forum to call out companies who don’t recall things voluntarily by issuing safety alerts and advisories. In the face of defiant companies who aren’t willing to “voluntarily” recall, FDA uses the forum to make sure the public knows both of the potential danger, and that the company isn’t allowed to keep the issue a secret.

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There are a thousand other ways that FDA helps protect the public through policy-making, data collection, or enforcement, but these 5 are unique in that they’re immediately verifiable by anyone with access to a search engine, and that “big industry” doesn’t benefit by them unless they’re also advocating for the public. If anyone has anything else they think should be added to this list, please comment and I’d be happy to review and add it in!